Dear Frankie

Dear Frankie


Reviewed by: Paul Griffiths

Debut director Shona Auerbach's homegrown film is a small tale that writes of bigger things to come.

Lizzie (Emily Mortimer) continues to move from one Scottish town to the next, apparently to wherever she can find work and afford a place to live. Her nine-year-old son Frankie (Jack McElhone) seems used to the routine, while her critical, yet loving, mother Nelly (Mary Riggans) is becoming more exasperated.

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The latest upheaval has bought them to Greenock, a Clyde coast town, where Lizzie gains a friend, Marie (Sharon Small), and job at her local chip shop. Nelly smokes even more and Frankie enrols in another new school.

Stability and dreaming for Frankie come from the letters he writes to his dad, a sailor who has been at sea for years on HMS Accra and writes his son touching letters from ever more exotic locations.

Stability and meaning for Lizzie comes from the fact that it's actually she who writes to Frankie, maintaining the pretence for years, while they continually run from Frankie's father.

Frankie is deaf, hardly speaks and signs only when strictly necessary, so his letters give Lizzie an insight into what her son is thinking and feeling. Despite her misgivings and Nell's remonstrations, she carries on the deception, while trying to keep the boy protected.

When Frankie learns that HMS Accra is due to berth in the local port, rather than come clean, Lizzie hires a mysterious stranger (Gerard Butler) to pose as Frankie's father for the day. Having to play at families, inevitably everyone has to face up to realities of the roles they act for each other and themselves.

Dear Frankie hangs on the role of Lizzie and Mortimer's credible central performance stops the piece from erring on the side of the maudlin. Given more time for range and expression than in Young Adam, her portrayal of a "dampered on" working class woman ably transcends her own more entitled background. She subtly conveys a woman frozen towards her own needs, but warm to others, and is convincing enough to carry the emotional arc of the film.

McElhone's young Frankie is, on the whole, a solid performance, especially in a role where he must communicate so much without words. Not hearing-impaired himself, he is totally believable as a deaf boy and invests Frankie with the spirit of independence that's needed to see the story up to a disappointingly forced conclusion. There are odd moments where he is overshadowed by the adults, but never by the other cringe-inducing school kids. This lad could be a British actor of merit in the next generation.

Although the film is being released in January '05, it was the result of a typically lengthy gestation period that started as far back as 1997, while Butler's star was still rising. When filming began, he had already shot Michael Crichton's Timeline and was in the middle of Tomb Raider 2, but this small Scottish feature gives him more opportunity than either of those to showcase a grasp of understatement. His character is deliberately bereft of personal detail and could easily have become a monotone construct. His mature subtlety, however, fleshes out the stranger with a suggested background of experiences to make him an equal touchstone for Mortimer's Lizzie. In fact, the screenplay tangibly gains momentum when his frame enters Lizzie's lonely domesticity.

All three work well within a script that has them very much at its focus. Secondary character's, such as Marie and Nell, are more one-sided and mostly service the film's central, whimsical premise.

Based on her original short script, Andrea Gibb's screenplay shows as much understanding of the fractured coherence of human relationships as her debut feature, Afterlife, which, by coincidence, was filmed in the same town at the same time. Other similarities also come to mind. The initial scenes feel a little clunky, as if the characters are painted with too broad a brush stroke, and the actors feel slightly uncomfortable with them. As in Afterlife, though, when the main protagonists are settled in, the script is intelligent enough to make its points without having to spell them out.

It is very much to Gibb's credit that she adapted her screenplay to include a character with a hearing impairment. This is not treated as a trite plot device, but what this boy's character is all about. And, why not? Along with Afterlife's perceptive treatment of a Down's Syndrome starring central role, Gibbs is steadily pioneering disability-awareness in quality British independent films. In both features, it is the people who are of concern, not a facet of their perceived abilities in the mainstream.

There are some genuinely emotive moments that are built towards with a certain amount of inevitability, given the nature of the film's how-long-could-it-last scenario. Unfortunately, everything is undermined when the solutions seem too convenient and forced in the final frames. Ultimately, this does the actors and writer no favours.

Auberbach's direction is assured, if unshowy, throughout. Her studied framing of close interior shots and wide country vistas reveal her professional photographic background. Her experience works well for the film, as her rendering of the gritty harbour town anchors it in a sense of reality, avoiding overly mawkish sentimentality. That said, a nostalgic sense of place is regularly created, such as when skimming stones at the shoreline, or viewing the town from a windy hillside, and all the locations make this an aesthetically homegrown affair.

Overall, Dear Frankie questions whether it is better to believe a placating deception than a terrible truth. When we lie to others, how do we deceive ourselves? When we think we protect the innocent, is it really ourselves that we shield?

This is all mapped out within a study of how people communicate their feelings to one another. It makes for an emotional and, at times, humorous diversion that ultimately loses out to a determinedly upbeat ending, which makes it less memorable than it should have been.

In the long run, Dear Frankie may be remembered more as an encouraging indication of greater things to come from those most prominent in front and behind the camera.

Reviewed on: 21 Jan 2005
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Mother of a nine-year-old deaf boy pays a stranger to be dad for a day.
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Read more Dear Frankie reviews:

Angus Wolfe Murray **1/2

Director: Shona Auerbach

Writer: Andrea Gibb

Starring: Emily Mortimer, Gerard Butler, Sharon Small, Jack McElhone, Mary Riggans, Jayd Johnson, Sean Brown

Year: 2004

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: UK


EIFF 2004

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